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Address at launch of Mental Health Week, Parliament House, Canberra.

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9 October 2006



Thank you very much Jane Halton, my ministerial and parliamentary colleagues, ladies and gentlemen and I particularly welcome the presence of so many doctors and psychologists and psychiatrists and other health professionals who’ve come along to be involved in this further announcement of the Government’s commitment to not only expanding the range of services and assistance for treating mental illness in our community, but also, as Jane Halton has said, generally investing further resources in health care for the benefit of the entire community.

I think all of you, perhaps you more so than any other group in the Australian community, would have argued long and hard and believed deep down that we needed as a country to put more resources into treating mental illness and in April of this year I announced on behalf of the Commonwealth that we would invest an additional $1.9 billion in a range of health care initiatives particularly designed to address what would seem legitimately in the community as gaps in our response to the challenge of mental disorders. That is part of a cooperative approach between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments towards tackling issues of mental health. There have been responses to our announcement in varying degrees from the states but it’s not my purpose today to analyse that, I’ll leave that to others.

I simply want today to touch on two of the very significant elements of that package and in doing so I’m sure again with an audience like this I don’t need to issue a reminder of the dimension of the problem, the reality that the recent statistics indicate

that in any six-month period, some 500,000 young people and teenagers, children and teenagers will encounter some kind of mental disorder. I think those sort of statistics drive home the challenge and they also drive home the fact that all age groups are

affected by mental disorders. The notion that it is overwhelming amongst the elderly in our community is completely misguided and quite erroneous and it’s something

that afflicts all sections of the community and that is why we need a more diverse response.

The two measures that I particularly want to just touch on, and I’m going to leave it to Chris Pyne, and can I say what an incredibly energetic disposition Chris Pyne has brought to this. I know that Amanda Gordon and others who have interacted with him in the time that he has been in this job, he really has brought great energy and determination and he has certainly played a very significant role in the lead up to the announcement that I made on behalf of the Commonwealth Government in April of this year.

The two initiatives that we are launching today are very significant components, the first of them which involves an expenditure of some $538 million over the next five years means that from the first of November this year, that’s the beginning of next month, there will be a significant enlargement of Medicare rebate availability for a range of services to treat mental disorders. It’ll provide better access to psychiatrists, psychologists and general practitioners through the Medicare Benefits Schedule. Now this does represent a very significant breakthrough and it will mean that a lot of consultations which are so material to treating people’s mental disorders which previously were not eligible for Medicare rebates will become eligible for Medicare rebates. And it does represent one of the really significant, necessary changes and reforms that could only be enacted by the Federal Government.

The second is that we will be committing some $51.7 million over five years to target areas of need by funding organisations such as divisions of general practice and Aboriginal medical services to establish and run mental health clinical services in rural and remote communities. Now these are two of the initiatives in the $1.9 billion dollar program and we’ll be releasing details of further initiatives as we move through this Mental Health Week.

And of course I take this opportunity in saying that whilst the major boost in clinical services is critical, our health package also includes a range of non-clinical services to help people and their families manage their day-to-day living, such as an additional

650 new respite care places, 900 personal mentors and helpers, living skills programmes to help people to cook and shop and other important social skills, and programmes to help young people with mental illnesses stay in school. Those last-mentioned programmes are absolutely critical, because if the onset or the presence from a very early age of a mental illness is not appropriately dealt with, then the despair is, as it were, self-compounded if the child drops out of school. And it makes the task of recovery and treatment that much more difficult.

I just want to emphasise before concluding that what I think these measures, particularly those relating to the expansion of the Medicare rebate system, what I think these measures will do is to emphasise the team approach to the treatment of mental illness in this country. I don’t want to sound, how shall I put it, self-serving in making this remark to this audience, but this country does have high-quality health professionals and we do need to remove some of the barriers which have existed through the restrictions in relation to the Medicare rebate system, and some of the other barriers that have prevented you and your colleagues from providing the kind of services that are needed.

We have certainly, as a community, become a lot more mature and a lot more commonsense in talking about mental illness. We often lament the deteriorations in social discourse that have occurred in this country over the last generation. We too infrequently remark on the improvements in social discourse that have taken place and one of the improvements is a greater willingness to talk, particularly, but not only by men, about challenges of this kind.

And I think the emphasis that Mental Health Week will bring to the community, talking about the problem of mental illness and a recognition of the causes of it, a frank assessment, but I hope an objective assessment of the impact of allegedly socially harmless drugs over the years. I think the impact of the abuse of those drugs is part of it, but it’s not the only part of it, there are a lot of other dimensions to it, and all that can be done to contribute to a better understanding of the problem as well as the dollars of the Commonwealth Government; I know they’re always an important component of these discussions and understandably so because they are the resources

of the Australian people and they should be directed towards tackling the problems of the Australian people.

I want again to record my thanks to Tony Abbott and to Chris Pyne and also to the former Health Minister Kay Patterson, who I know is here today and has taken an enormous interest in this issue. I want to thank all of them for the contribution that they’ve made, but most importantly I thank all of you for the support that you are offering by your presence. This is something of, if not a new beginning, it is a breakout from some of the past restrictions. I hesitate to invoke the language of new beginnings because that can be a little overdone. But I do think by enlarging the Medicare rebate system to embrace things that are really part and parcel of a doctor treating a patient for a mental disorder and some consultations in group therapies and the like, I think to include them in the Medicare rebate schedule, and can I make the point that all of these services become eligible for the operation of that wonderful innovation to Medicare introduced by the Government and that is the Medicare Safety Net. And I do want to emphasise that point lest anybody be concerned about the potential burden of gap fees and the like. They won’t be a burden because of the wonderful operation of the Medicare Safety Net.

Thank you very, very much and I hope that these announcements will maintain the momentum of growing government, at both levels, as well as, community interest in the treatment of mental disorders. Thank you.